Ha'aretz, December 26, 2000

Israeli Elections Are Lost
Rather Than Won

By Moshe Arens

Two months ago Ehud Barak peremptorily plunged the country into early elections for the post of prime minister. Misusing a poorly phrased section of the unfortunate direct election law, he blocked the Knesset's legislation for early elections to the Knesset by resigning his post, only to announce that he was running again.It was a "dirty trick" to rival Shimon Peres' dirty trick that brought down the National Unity government ten years ago and raised the hysteria that eventually brought upon us the two-ballot system of elections.

With elections only six weeks away Barak is now engaged in a frantic race to conclude an agreement with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat that he would like to put before voters on election day. He is evidently under the influence of polls that indicate that while he is trailing badly in the race with Sharon and that most of the voters have lost confidence in him, the majority would nevertheless support an agreement with the Palestinians.

That presumably will be his ticket to victory in the elections. But Barak is misreading the public mood. While most Israelis yearn for an end to the conflict and violence, they harbor serious misgivings about Arafat and doubt the value of any agreement signed by him. After all, wasn't it Barak himself who only a few months ago announced that Arafat was not a partner for peace?

The election clock is ticking away as Shlomo Ben-Ami in Washington negotiates sovereignty over the Temple Mount, the division of Jerusalem, Palestinian control of the Jordan Valley, and the "right of return" for Palestinians - all matters of utmost importance to Israel's future. The results, whatever they will be, although not legally binding on the next government, will seriously impair its negotiating position in the peace process.

With a change of government possibly only weeks away Barak is in the process of making life difficult for the next government, as well as setting the stage for an escalation in Palestinian violence.

Barak's supporters argue that until a new government is assembled after the elections, the present government is authorized to perform all of the functions of government, including international negotiations. Although in the narrow legal sense this is correct, it is without precedent in the annals of democratic governments.

In the period leading up to elections, major issues - especially international commitments - traditionally have been left in abeyance. Several months before the US elections President Bill Clinton decided to leave decisions about the National Missile Defense system to the next president. The issue is controversial and a source of disagreement between Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

Although important, its significance for the United States by no means matches the potential impact on Israel of the issues being discussed in the Washington negotiations. In postponing his decision, Clinton followed the tradition of democratic governance, a tradition for which Barak evidently has little respect.

When Arafat returned from the Camp David summit and began his campaign of violence, Barak made it clear the Palestinians would not be allowed to gain anything by it and negotiations would not proceed so long as the violence lasted. These words have now been forgotten. Like many other times in his brief career as prime minister, he has reversed his position and is counting on the negotiations in Washington to bring him victory in the coming elections. He is grasping at straws.

Reports of more and more concessions being offered by Ben-Ami in Washington, and of Arafat insisting these are still insufficient for an agreement, accompany the daily accounts of Israeli casualties in Palestinian attacks. Barak is mistaken if he thinks that this creates a mood among the Israeli public supportive of the negotiations.

The people would have to believe him a saint to think his negotiating position is not being influenced by electoral considerations. To be seen giving up the Temple Mount to win an election is no way to attract votes.

It has been often been demonstrated that Israeli elections are lost rather than won - it is the eventual loser's mistakes that determine the outcome. Presently, it is Barak making the mistakes - the ones that are likely to lose him the next election.

(c) 2000 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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